Research

My research is at the intersection of philosophy of science, feminist ethics, and social epistemology. My current research projects examine:
(1) stereotype threat and under-representation in academic settings
(2) stereotypes of irrationality in healthcare contexts
(3) how informal or implicit models operate in the sciences
(4) competing accounts of scientific objectivity

Project (1) seeks to make sense of the apparent fact that a stereotype you don’t believe can affect a part of yourself you may not even realize you care about.

I tackle this in my dissertation by examining how stereotype threat (anxiety stemming from the potential salience of a negative stereotype) can affect self-identity and epistemic agency.  I argue that, contrary to popular descriptions, stereotype threat targets our self-identity, not our performance. Though its ability to hinder performance is important for understanding performance gaps in education (the original context of the research), this standard, narrow framing too easily ignores stereotype threat’s other effects. These include decreased motivation to pursue a stereotyped domain, decreased sense of belonging in that domain, and dis-identification with a stereotyped group. In short, stereotype threat affects human behavior in various ways, so while its effects on performance are important, they are not the whole picture.

My full argument for these claims can be found in my paper,
“Expanding Our Picture of Stereotype Threat”.

The rest of my dissertation engages with work on implicit bias, “epistemic injustice,” “epistemic violence,” and under-representation in academia. Specifically, I argue that stereotype threat can exert a kind of coercive pressure on our self-identity, making it a form of epistemic injustice. This may help explain why various groups are under-represented in philosophy and other fields. Currently, when philosophers examine stereotype threat’s potential role in under-representation, we usually only focus on its ability to hinder performance.

Some of the issues I tackle regarding epistemic injustice are in my paper, “Stereotype Threat, Epistemic Injustice, and Rationality” (forthcoming 2016). You can read an abstract of the paper here (Academia.edu). Or you can email me.

The next step in this project will entail looking at research on implicit self-identity–since apparently that is a thing. I want to examine how stereotype threat and other phenomena, such as gas-lighting and impostor syndrome, may unconsciously affect individuals’ self-identity.

Project (2) applies insights from project (1), which focuses on academia and education, to medical contexts. Though there is almost no current research on stereotype threat in medicine, we have good reasons to suspect the phenomenon influences various aspects of healthcare. For instance, stereotype threat could alter the behavior of patients with a history of mental illness—i.e. their willingness to seek treatment or their description of symptoms. Healthcare professionals could mistake these patients’ behavior as evidence of irrationality.

I am particularly interested in the kind of influence stereotypes of irrationality can have. This stems from the work I’ve done thinking about issues of rationality and agency as they appear in popular culture. My short essay, “‘There Are No True Knights’: The injustice of chivalry” argues that the fictional code of chivalry in the Game of Thrones universe is ultimately an unjust one, because it stunts many women’s rational and ethical agency. In “Masculinity and Supernatural Love,” I argue that Sam and Dean Winchester from Supernatural face a paradox when they try to embrace brotherly love while also living up to certain masculine ideals. I term these ideals the supremely rational “sovereign” and the indomitable “warrior.” I am interested in the fact that there are so many examples in popular fiction of characters who struggle to attain a kind of impossible rational agency, or struggle to be taken as fully human when their social identities clash with our ideals of rationality.

Project (3) engages with the social construction of scientific knowledge. Projects (1) and (2) lay the groundwork for articulating the concept I am currently calling, “paradigm model narratives” (PMNs). These are descriptions of phenomena that, through repetition, become working paradigms. When PMNs are created unknowingly, they can mislead the public, as well as perniciously influence scientists’ work. For instance, the dominant account of stereotype threat is this sort of misleading PMN.

Another possible PMN is that of bipolar disorder, which presents the condition as consisting of two mutually exclusive states: mania and depression. But in fact, these two states are not mutually exclusive. Thus, this PMN may make some symptoms of bipolar unrecognizable, which can lead to individuals going untreated, or not being believed when they claim to have the disorder.

Project (4) on objectivity stems from my talk “Parsing the Value of Objectivity”, presented at the 2014 Values in Medicine, Science, and Technology Conference at UT Dallas. I argue that Heather Douglas’ account of the eight aspects of scientific objectivity is a good starting point for thinking about what under-girds our notions of (epistemological) scientific objectivity. But, I think we can reduce her eight aspects down to three: stability, reliability, and neutrality.

The next steps in this project are to investigate whether stability, reliability, and neutrality are ultimately reducible to one thing, such as an ideal of mind-independence. I suspect that they are, but I also suspect that they don’t have to be. And if we believe that mind-independence is a bad guiding ideal for scientific objectivity (which many philosophers of science do), then what should replace it?

My current thought is that the ideal of mind-independence stems from a desire to tap into a kind of ultimate authority. And that sort of authority likely doesn’t exist. Acknowledging this could compel us to replace the ideal of the omniscient view-from-nowhere with a more tenuous, more pragmatic, and perhaps more existentialist form of scientific empiricism. Importantly, this will not necessarily collapse science into pseudo-science. Nor will it herald a kind of post-modern, anti-realist nightmare that many philosophers of science still use as their boogey-monster of choice.

Instead, using Helen Longino’s account of objectivity as socially contextualized and Elizabeth Anderson’s account of science as the search for significant truth, we can better understand science as the imperfect tool that it is.  And imperfect though it may be, it is still one of the best we may ever have.